In a review of a 40th-anniversary edition of a book you may have never heard of (despite there having been a 30th-anniversary edition, as well), a bit of background is probably in order.
“The Changeling” was Joy Williams’ second novel, published five years after her first (1973’s “State of Grace”) had won much acclaim. It stirred high expectations — expectations that “The Changeling” decidedly didn’t meet for one very prominent critic, whose damning review has been blamed for sinking the book.
In the years since then, Williams’ literary star has risen and, with it, an interest in getting “The Changeling” out of the woodshed. A 30th-anniversary edition, with a preface by Rick Moody, at least opened the door. And this new edition, with a breathless introduction by Karen Russell, finally brings the book back into the light.
Well, what of the book? It is truly weird, but in a way that’s become far more common, and celebrated, since its debut. Plotted, it’s not, which in some ways may be the point, because the main character, Pearl, is far more concerned about toeing the blurry line between what’s real and what’s not than about getting anywhere in particular.
That line is blurry in part because Pearl is a drunk, and whether her world is wild with visions because she drinks, or vice versa, is anyone’s guess. When we meet her, she’s sitting in a bar with her baby, having escaped a mysterious island where she lived with Walker, the older man who swept her off her feet — literally, it didn’t take much — after catching her shoplifting and taking her, a more-than-compliant teenager, to a motel for some furious coupling.
Walker has come to take her home, but on the way, their plane crashes, he dies, and Pearl ends up in the hospital with a baby she suspects is not her own. Walker’s brother Thomas, another menacing charismatic, takes Pearl and the child back to the island, where she lives in a state of intoxicated suspense among the dozen or so peculiar children Thomas has acquired through questionable means.
By the time the book descends into pure hallucinatory madness, a reader will be more than ready, as will Pearl, who “had tried so earnestly once to be sane.”
Williams is a brilliant writer, and the book is laced with exquisite lines, many startling and some bizarrely funny — but it all comes to naught, in a quite deliberate way. “No,” Pearl thinks, after believing she’s heard music “both intelligible and untranslatable … there was nothing. They were all gone, and she was too. It was so. It had happened.”
In her contributor’s note in “Best American Short Stories 1995,” Williams wrote, “All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach.” In “The Changeling” she has filled up that nothingness with shimmering baubles from fairy tales and motherhood, madness and myth, and then, no doubt exhausted, thrown in the towel.
Ellen Akins is a writer, editor and teacher in Wisconsin; ellenakins.com
By: Joy Williams.
Publisher: Tin House, 310 pages, $19.95.